The fight to achieve the dream
First, we started learning the steps to lay claim over our forest land. We learned that a meeting of all the villagers (gramsabha) hears our claim, may visit the plot, make enquiries with neighbors and elders, and then approves it. Then, a copy of the resolution, along with land map and other papers moves up the ladder in various government departments. But, the most important part is that, those on the ladders of power can not reject claim or pass only part of it. They can just see that all the procedure is completed and all the papers are in order. So, equipped with this new knowledge, we started approaching the authorities to submit our claims.
That was when we faced our first hurdle, and a big shock. We were told that all our villages had already conducted the meetings to consider the claims under FRA – and rejected all the claims made! No one in our villages had ever heard of any Gram Sabha, so it was clear the smart babus had just painted the process on a piece of paper. We felt defeated, cheated and frustrated. We felt that this was just what happened every time about any government scheme. Just as we were on the verge of forgetting about any attempts to get our land, our urban friends in the Vayam said we can fight the system and make it work again. After some thought, we decided to use the Right to Information Act. We made several applications, seeking copies of attendance sheets and minutes of the Gramsabhas. That gave us the first taste of victory. The authorities ordered the Gramsabhas to be conducted again, and deputed a couple of our volunteers to attend these, and see that they were conducted properly.
In next few days, a lot of villages in our vicinity completed the Gramsabha, and many tribals submitted claims for agricultural plots. But, may be, allotting land to us hurt some vested interests. May be just responding to a simple application did not go well with entrenched egos too. So our applications just sat in government offices, gathering dust, for almost a year.
Once again, we decided to use the RTI. We realized there were more than 6000 tribals whose FRA claims were awaiting outcome, for reasons undisclosed. Now, we thought, if one is suffering from injustice, one has to put up a fight himself, right? So, we got a draft application from an urban friend, and appealed all the tribals to fill in the personal details and submit all applications on a single day!
It was a site worth seeing when more than 600 people actually made it to the office of the Deputy Collector at Jawhar. Many had travelled 40-50 kilometers, spending a days wages. Most had foregone the wages they could have earned that day. All of them lined up to ask for a most improbable thing – not food, not job, but information – as a means to further their fight for land. Like a true satyagrahi, they were completely non-violent, polite and ready to make a sacrifice. Our urban friends told us they hardly know any other case where the applicant sacrificed 2 days earning just to make an application under the RTI
For next 10-15 days, the applications kept on showering on the authorities. At the final count, some 1,278 people made applications to get information about fate of their claims under FRA act. They asked for information about the documents required to go with the claim forms, documents actually attached, and daily progress of their applications. If at all the administration chose to give correct reply, they will have to admit that all correct documents accompanied each application, and that they have done nothing after getting the application. This may make the babus liable for action under the Human Rights Act, Consumer Protection Act, Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act, to name a few!
The RTI Act requires that each application is replied within 30 days. So, when 30 days got over, the applicant started making appeals to higher authorities. The authorities called us for hearing in batches of 10 – and tried to bully us! The officer asked us who was paying us for making applications, who was instigating us to fight against government, who was going to bear the travelling and other expenses, etc. He also asked us to choose – he can either give land or information. At the end of hearing, our trained volunteers asked for proceedings of this, including the threats! Of course, the officer rejected this demand too.
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